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L.A. in the grips of Gustavo-mania

October 11, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Gustavo Dudamel throws himself into his conducting during his inaugural performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall as new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / October 8, 2009)

Through the generosity and kindness of a friend and colleague who gave me his tickets, I was able to hear Gustavo Dudamel last night during his debut week as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The informed scribes of the Los Angeles Times (Mark Swed) and New York Times (Anthony Tommasini) have already made their appraisals and I'm not sure there's much for me to add. The concert was recorded for iTunes, so listeners will soon be able to form their own opinions without the interference of nitpicking commentary. But inasmuch as Dudamel's arrival is a landmark in Los Angeles history, I thought I would offer a few lines by reprising -- if only briefly -- my former incarnation as a music critic.


Los Angeles is in the grips of Gustavo-mania and with good reason. The charismatic young Venezuelan has already inspired audiences in a way that makes marketing directors' hearts sing. (The woman sitting next to me flew in from Washington, D.C., just to hear him and already has tickets for the orchestra's upcoming tour). We have not yet christened part of Disney Concert Hall "Gustavowood," as a companion to the Dodgers' "Mannywood," but I anticipate it at any time.

Quite frankly, I was not expecting much because I had heard recordings of Dudamel with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (reckless, rushed tempos and ragged playing) and the Israel Philharmonic (mostly remarkable because it was a young man leading the Israel Philharmonic). Last night, I was happily surprised.

If you haven't heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic aside from commercial releases, you might wonder how it sounds au naturel. I heard the orchestra many years ago on tour under Zubin Mehta and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, along with live broadcasts over the years, too long ago to recall the orchestra's sound in great detail, although I do remember (indeed, how could one forget?) Mehta's gymnastics on the podium.

More recently I have attended Disney Concert Hall performances thanks to the generosity of various friends who had spare tickets. (Last night's seats were $98 apiece plus tax for the nosebleed section--people in the orchestral world who worry about the crisis in classical music audiences please take note).

The often-cited claim that there are no bad seats in Disney Concert Hall appears to be true. There are certainly nothing like the supporting columns I recall (or seem to recall from my childhood) blocking the view in the upper balconies of Orchestra Hall in Chicago, where my parents took me as a youngster, or the miserably pinched, airless view I had one year for Seattle's "Ring Cycle" in the Glynn Ross era.  

In previous performances I have been seated to the side of the orchestra (Joshua Bell/Herbert Blomstedt--fairly good acoustics) and behind the trombones/tubas (Yefim Bronfman/Xian Zhang--rather muffled). For Dudamel's concert, I was seated in a more traditional area, the upper reaches at the back of the hall.

The first thing that struck me about the orchestra is the high caliber of playing. These days, that's a given, of course. But I think it's worth noting that today, in a top-flight orchestra, all the mechanics of playing are satisfied: The musicians play in tune, they make their entrances, follow their cues and the sections (the horns, the woodwinds, the strings) play cohesively. However obvious and rudimentary these concerns may seem, they are not trivial and any orchestra that can brag of such an achievement is well on the way to greatness.

But not necessarily there. What kept coming back to me as I listened to the orchestra was "ah, the horns are doing this ... aha, the oboes are doing that ... here are the trumpets ... here comes the tympani roll... " It was as if I were listening to 100-plus separate voices, or the various tonal blocks -- strings, brass, percussion, etc.-- rather than a symphony orchestra. Maybe my expectations have been led astray by too many years of listening to the tricks of recording engineers mixing the colors like a Photoshop of sound. But if I had to describe the way the orchestra sounds to me, I would say I was more aware of the raw individual colors rather than the completed painting.


The concert began with "Su," a concerto for sheng and orchestra by Unsuk Chin performed by Wu Wei.

More years ago than I care to remember, I attended an utterly disheartening conference of my fellow music critics in San Francisco. Of course, this was before newspapers in all but the largest American cities slashed their budgets by eliminating coverage of classical music and the fine arts in general. Not that I could entirely blame the editors who made the cuts, given the deplorable state of classical music coverage at most papers. With a few exceptions, my fellow music critics were little prima donnas with dubious credentials, artsy pretensions and limited writing skills who fawned over the one or two big guns from the major newspapers who deigned to rub elbows with the rabble.

I mention this gathering because at a sparsely attended session on the obscure field of world music, one performer said with absolute seriousness that the day would come when world music would share the stage with Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.  We provincial rubes thought this was the funniest crackpot idea we had heard in years and wrote it off as "Well, you know, it IS San Francisco. Maybe that kind of thing goes here but not in [fill in the name of your favorite small  town]."

My crystal ball was certainly cloudy that day. Since then we have had Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project, along with a great deal of exotic influences in film scores so that world music has indeed entered the common repertoire.

In light of that, I suppose it is no surprise to find a concerto for sheng (an ancient Chinese instrument now fitted with chromatic keys) on the same program with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

In brief, "Su" is a pleasant, nonthreatening modern work of shimmering colors that's interesting to watch in performance mostly because Wu Wei is an enthusiastic, athletic musician who bounces when he plays -- and his bright red scarf and black outfit certainly add visual drama. Tones are produced on the sheng by blowing as well as sucking air through the instrument. The sheng has an amazingly wide range of tonal colors and most reminded me of some old-school "musique concrete" in which tape-recorded sounds were played backward.


Which brings us to the Mahler.

I suppose if you asked 50 people, you would get 50 different ideas of the Symphony No. 1. Like everyone else, I have distilled a sonic ideal of how the work should be. It is uniquely mine, based on dim recollections of a graduate seminar on Mahler, and a quirky blend of Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic in a noisy broadcast from Tanglewood, a dab of an old Bruno Walter LP, some Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, some New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bouncing his way through "Songs of a Wayfarer," and maybe  a dash of Leonard Bernstein--but only a dash, because for me a little Bernstein goes a long way.
It's not Dudamel's job to conform to the unarticulated and ever-evolving notion of the Mahler that I carry around in my head because he hasn't any idea what it is and he might well disagree with it. For that matter, I might disagree with it myself in a year or two because it's never complete but always reshaping itself.

In that context, how does Dudamel see Mahler? Well, Dudamel is a remarkable, young conductor and a remarkably young conductor. Some folks have made much about his conducting the Mahler from memory, but honestly, it's so well known these days, I'm surprised it's not in karaoke bars, along with the Shostakovich Fifth, which I have nicknamed "The Inescapable." Mehta (who is not one of my favorite conductors by a long shot) used to get a fair amount of press by conducting from memory, but it's nothing special anymore.

In general, Dudamel's Mahler First is a rollicking, buoyant work. He took some of the slower passages a bit faster than I like (the third movement's mournful satire on "Frere Jacques" could stand to be a bit more funereal for my money) and the faster passages a bit slower than I care for. What struck me the most was how he seems to save his best for the final movement. Last Saturday's live performance of Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, broadcast from the Hollywood Bowl, was really nothing special until the finale. In the same way, the Mahler was a nice, competent job until the last movement, when the orchestra put some muscle and passion into it.

And as I listened to the Mahler, I got to thinking that this is a young man's approach to the work--not necessarily immature, but youthful and inspiring. I won't be around to hear how Dudamel does the Symphony No. 1 when he's in his 80s, as Masur is now. But I would be curious to know what it's like. I would anticipate that rather than being youthful, it will be a reflection on the remembrances of youth.

Is Dudamel on the verge of establishing a reputation as one of the prime Mahler interpreters of his generation? No--absolutely not. But he handles it well. In our mania for the superlatives of the "Lake Woebegon " era, where all children are above average, it may seem a crime to call the performance workmanlike, serviceable and competent, but those are not small accomplishments. And in reality, truly spectacular -- and memorably awful --  concerts are few and far between. One or two per season if you're lucky. Most will be in the great middle, where this concert fell toward the high end.


I'm probably in the minority when I say that for me, the true test of an orchestra isn't necessarily the big, raucous works like Mahler symphonies or Richard Strauss' tone poems, but the delicacy of Mozart. I am extremely curious as to how Dudamel sees the works of our favorite fellow from Salzburg.

One other thing worth mentioning. Based on what I have read and observed, Dudamel appears to see himself with a fair amount of humility. During the extended applause and standing ovation at last night's concert, Dudamel threaded his way deep into the orchestra to acknowledge the soloists and generously shared the spotlight.

Conductors rather notoriously come in all shapes and sizes. Most of the old-fashioned conductors of the recent past were merciless tyrants. Some of today's laureate stars are famously egotistical and aloof. Young Gustavo Dudamel appears to be a far more humble, outgoing and therefore inspiring fellow and I suspect the Los Angeles Philharmonic's musicians and audiences will flourish under his care.